Live United: True collaboration can bring possibility to the community

Published 8:45 pm Friday, September 8, 2023

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Live United by Erin Haag

Once upon a time, United Way was focusing on grants that required a collaboration between two agencies. The intention was to make sure that agencies were working together. Sounds great, right? Except there wasn’t a clear example of what that looked like. There were grant applications that answered “yes” to the question of if they were collaborating with another agency naming them. The other agency would answer the same question as a “No.” So then where was the collaboration? Neither of them were exactly wrong. The first agency considered the fact that they referred clients to the other one as collaboration. The second agency considered that to be relationship-building, and a normal part of being in the human service field, but not necessarily collaboration at a programmatic level.

Erin Haag

When we restructured the grant process, this was one of the questions we removed. Collaboration is important, and it’s still listed on the rubric and can be used to develop a stronger grant application, but it’s not a straight yes or no answer. Sometimes it’s just not possible to collaborate at that higher level that the past UWFC board of directors was looking for. Hindsight was 20/20, and it was realized that the question was putting pressure on agencies in unanticipated ways.

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Sometimes though, the stars align, and there’s an opportunity to truly work together.

September started off busy, with children going back to school, gardens exploding with harvest, and new and familiar faces in our space. Two programs that provided hot meals to seniors have decided to merge. Meals to Go has delivered meals to seniors within the city limits of Albert Lea. SEMCAC has delivered meals through their Mobile Meals program in rural Freeborn County. A couple of months ago, the volunteer leaders of Meals to Go approached SEMCAC and asked if they’d consider taking over the program. They wanted to be able to provide a higher quality meal for their seniors.

Jeff Wyant, director of senior nutrition, gave me a call. In order to accomplish this, there needed to be a site where meals could be packed up, and drivers would pick up the meals before heading out on their route. We talked through different options, and the pros and cons. Ultimately, we decided to on a trial period at the United Way offices. After all, our pantry was open in the afternoon/evening, and meals go out around lunchtime. We knew that many of our drivers/volunteers would overlap, and perhaps there would be some shared staffing in the future as well.

I thought for sure it was going to be a few months. Nope. We found solid tables that would meet our needs for sale from a community member. We were able to order casters to make them as mobile as possible. Jeff spent a day scrubbing an extra office down and freshening up with paint. Volunteers on the United Way side got involved and helped put together extra carts. Jeff and his team interviewed for new positions, and hired Janelle to oversee things at the delivery pickup. With that accomplished, Mobile Meals/Meals To Go hit the ground running on Tuesday.

Like anything else, it’s an adjustment. The Meals to Go volunteers have been out in full force, making sure this transition is as easy as possible. There’s new routines to learn, new bags to carry and a heavier weight to the trays — because there’s more food being provided to the trays. There’s been a couple of complaints from others in the building — that the food smells so good, it’s torture. That’s one complaint I’m happy to hear, because our seniors deserve a high quality good meal.

This is the foundational work for higher collaboration. Right now, we’re just sharing space, but once they get settled into this new program, there are possibilities. Opportunities for possibilities. I can hear some people fussing though. Fussing in a loving way. We’re doing too much, we’ve got to get some more help, we can’t take on another program. All of that is true — and it’s important to note that we’re most decidedly not doing any of that. Believe me, I’ll run the other way before adding another program at the moment. I might dream big, but I know that the work is about sustainability right now. This is SEMCAC’s program, and it’s their responsibility to handle all the things with it. Those opportunities that we talk about are ways to combine services that already exist. For example, how many of our seniors receiving hot meals also receive our CFSP/NAPS boxes that we coordinate deliveries for? How many seniors would also appreciate some milk and eggs from the Welcome Pantry? What ways can we deliver once, and get a hot meal, some basic shelf stable foods and a little bit of fresh produce/dairy?

Would a SEMCAC person that already has a key to the building and is familiar with the space be interested in being a paid on-call backup person for the evening shift with the pantry? Would there be volunteers that deliver meals that would also be interested in helping unload a truck before it’s time to deliver the meals?

We’re excited for this true collaboration with the possibilities in front of us. If you’d like to join us, we could use some help. Even something as simple as bringing a good book for an hour or so and sitting in a comfy chair by the door would be helpful. The meal trays are reusable, so drivers deliver a new meal, pick up yesterdays’ trays and bring them back to be washed. Because of the logistics of the current layout, we keep our door locked, and it can be a lot of back and forth and time away that Janelle could be returning phone calls. Help is also needed in packing the meals, and of course, there’s a never-ending list of little things to do for United Way, from sorting blankets to checking produce or keeping the coffee going. If you’re interested in serving this way, please give us a call at 507-373-8670. I’m putting my information down for now, as SEMCAC is still getting set up, but we’ll get everyone connected. In the meantime, stay tuned for more ways to stay United in Purpose, and all the things happening this fall.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.